George Bell and Sons
These pages are inscribed with affection and esteem
These essays on the furnishing and decoration of the home appeared in the "Pall Mall Gazette" under the heading of "Wares of Autolycus," and are reprinted by perpemission of the Editor.
"He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for some flower of the narcissus; for bread is the food of the body; but narcissus is food for the soul."-MAHOMET.
No need now for such sacrifice of one lawful appetite to another; streets and shops vie with one another in many-coloured abundance of spring blooms; they blossom like the rose, and there seems something almost of the miraculous in the exchange of a few dingy copper coins for so great a treasure of fragrance and freshness, something nearly akin to the strange bargaining in fairy-tales and the "Arabian Nights." But what soul could profitably feed on flowers of the narcissus, nervelessly stuffed into the self-same vessel with a bunch of gilliflowers and anemones, or other equally unsympathetic neighbours. It is, indeed, strange that so large a proportion of those who entertain an honest affection for flowers-who, had they only the prophet's proverbial two cakes of bread, would assuredly sell one of them for some flower of the narcissus-still are given to treat them so unhandsomely in the matter of arrangement. You are led to wonder what manner of pleasure may be theirs in the blossoms they so innocently maltreat, whose charms they so successfully obscure; but as even the most devoid of aesthetic sensibility will far more readily forgive an aspersion on their morals than upon their taste (or the lack of it), this interesting problem is likely to remain unsolved.
It is not, of course, to be expected that a race so generally careless of and insensitive to, all the less obvious forms of beauty as ours, should have developed, as have the Japanese, a complete system and science of floral arrangement, with its own counsels of perfection, its own definite laws of line and structure, where twig and leaf, even as bud and blossom, have each their appointed parts to play in the beautiful scheme. This is an art by itself and a very complex and intricate accomplishment-yet well worth the mastery-with the Japanese. Our most felicitous arrangements would show, in comparison with the least of theirs, as commonplace as might a Millais beside a Velasquez, a lyric by Thomas Haynes Bailey printed opposite a sonnet of Shakespeare's.
Here we have not the time, nor, presumably, the inclination, to study so fair and comely a science. Most of us are every whit as well pleased by a trite and tasteless effect as by a fine harmony of line and colour. Flowers are flowers, we say, and everyone knows that a love for flowers is indicative of a refined and poetic cast of mind; so we take pink tulips, white lilac, and yellow tulips, and crowd all together in bowls of water, in as sickly a discord as ever made glad the heart of woman. Or we make posies of red anemones and daffodils, with sprays of mimosa gracefully stuck between; or unholy combinations of blue and pink hyacinths, and so forth, mostly too numerous both as to quantity and quality.
And it were so very easy, you would think so much easier even, not to err thus elaborately. Simplicity is in this, at least, facile of achievement; such a small amount of discrimination is necessary to perceive what vessels are best suited to the flowers you propose to set in water. It is naturally better to avoid mingling different kinds of flowers, unless you are cowered with a very finely-developed instinct for colour and proportion, which is rare. Three or four opaque pearl-white tulips, with their tall stems and pale green leaves, in a slender jar of old Japanese bronze are immeasurably better than the entire harvest of a hot-house unintelligently distributed about a room. Half a handful of daffodils amid their green spears, loosely set in a long, slim, trumpet-shaped glass, very clear and fine, fulfil their decorative destiny worthily and well.
The motley, tightly packed nosegay of the past, -more like an ill-made mosaic than a company of living flowers, - now all but obsolete, was a marvellous leveller. No single flower was permitted to enjoy its own individuality; all alike were crushed and ground down to the same decorative neutrality. But although we do not sin so uncompromisingly, we are prone to err with more pretension, and it remains to be proved whether the sheer obtuse brutality of the bygone method was really so very much more condemnable than the self-conscious solecisms of the new. To recognize that different flowers demand different manners of disposal, and different (if any) companionship, would seem to be one of the most obvious and elementary necessities; and yet, to be sure, it is often enough ignored.
Short-stemmed flowers, flowers with no particularly distinctive silhouette, that look best in clustered masses, are, perhaps, the least facile to deal with. Shallow blue Nankin bowls make excellent receptacles for violets and for primroses, as do certain bronzes, provided they be not too deep. But for plucked crocuses the only adequate shrine that comes to mind is a graceful Japanese bronze incense burner, three-legged, and very shallow in the bowl. The cover is formed of a kind of trellis work of ivy-stalks, berries, and leaves, through whose liberal interstices the amethyst and white chalices, with their saffron centres and small striped spears, stand up triumphantly after the habit of their growth. Some of the bronze Japanese flower vessels are fitted with bars, so placed across the mouth as to hold sufficiently upright a bough in blossom. These cannot, of course, be bought at the ordinary Oriental emporium, but could, in all likelihood, bet procured from more researched collections. They are eminently desirable possessions, for by their means you are enabled to give the character of the growth full play, and to display to best advantage the gracious curves and outlines of leaf and stem and petal.- What in early spring could be much more pictorially pleasing than blossoming boughs of almond or pyrus japonica, set- always with due regard to their shape and direction-in one of-these vessels? Then, a little later, there will be plum and apple-blossom, plucked when the branch is in bud, and breaking day by day to full flower, on your table, an you will. Later, again, come glorious opportunities afforded by the iris-purple, or amber, or freaked, pansy-wise, with both-by certain varieties of lily, of magnolia, and, last of all, by burnished autumn foliage, silver, copper, or gold.
The dark rosewood tulip-stands of last century (devised when the bulbs they were meant to enshrine were worth far more than their weight in gold), classical cup-shaped urns cut in bars to show a brass lining, and supported on tall tripods, have mostly been turned to other uses; they entertain the patient palm and the dreary aspodistra; which seems a pity, for the old order was pleasing and appropriate enough. In clear glasses, whether white or green, but white for preference, tulips are a joy so long as they may last, unless perchance they open too widely; and in jars of blue and white Delft, genially globular above and tapering elegantly towards the base, they are perhaps more attractive still, with a charm of quaintness peculiarly Dutch. With tulips it is best to keep the colours separate, more especially with the striped sorts; anemones, however, are all the better for variety. You may mix deep purple, dark red, faintest pink, palest lilac, and silver white anemones all in one group with an effect more richly beautiful than a heap of gleaming gems or an old stained glass window with the spring sun shining through. It should be remembered that half the poetry of the wind-flower is lost by putting too many blossoms into the vase, for the stalk has (like that of the marsh marigold) a way of growing, as it were, in the water you have set it in, and taking, in the process, the most divine curves imaginable. Robust and yet delicate, strong and radiant with a most joyous and wonderful strength, it seems the very embodiment of youth and of spring. For lilac, which, like wisteria, demands to be disposed in masses, and a high vessel, the classic copper tea urn of the Georgian era is the ideal vase; it is readily adapted from its former métier, and presently, when the summer shall come, will show pre-eminently fair, filled with great white peonies. Wall-flowers, too, are best seen in large trusses, and for these you can find nothing better than an old copper wine-cooler.
Blue and white china punch-bowls, when not over deep, provide sympathetic shrines for cowslips; so do the old green ginger jars, so difficult now to come by, with crackle glaze, and low reliefs of birds and flowers. But if you are staying -in "furnished apartments" remotely-in the country, it may be of some solace to realize that a common glass pickle jar may prove a far from uncomely vessel for woodland spoils. It is, to say the least of it, a welcome refuge from your landlady's ornamental flower-vases.
Each morn a thousand roses brings in June, and not to the garden alone, but along the hedgerows and among the underwoods to boot. And not roses only, but an infinitely varied multitude of less-considered blooms-less-considered, that is to say, from any practically decorative standpoint- and yet worthy enough, in all conscience, when carefully plucked and heedfully disposed, to make unfashionably fair the chambers or the dinner tables on whose behalf they may be gathered together. The over-prevalent conception as to the arrangement of wild flowers is much the same as that which only too lately obtained with regard to the indoor disposal of more highly-differentiated growths-a blind conviction, namely, that flowers being in themselves things of beauty could do no wrong, even when mixed and mingled in such indiscriminate wise as to hurl defiance at every law, written or unwritten (and the last are the more important), of harmony and fitness.
We are come at last to recognize, partially it is true, but still to recognize-"one glimpse, if dimly, yet indeed revealed"-that it is a most unprofitable practice to cram as many garden flowers as possible and of as many different kinds and colours, into the same vessel; but the lilies of the field are still, even when thought to deserve the trouble of carrying home and setting in water, used with scant ceremony and less taste. We are apt to treat them as something like beggars to whom a half-kindly, half-contemptuous alms is tossed in passing, or who are allowed to find some transitory solace at the back door. Snatched clumsily from the parent stem, with no regard for symmetry of leafage or proportionate length of stalk, borne homewards in the enervating grasp of hot fingers, and pushed "anyhow" into any kind of vase that comes handy, there is small matter for wonder that, as a general rule, the beauty of wild flowers is so sadly to seek when translated to the house.
And yet, with a very little thought, they are capable of much that is charming within doors as well as without. And although there is no lack of blossom and perfume of the cultivated kind, it may nevertheless be worth while to go out, upon occasion, into the highways and hedges for your table decorations if for nothing else. The enterprise is harmless, to say the least of it, and, if the grace of unfamiliar effects, of chords that you have not already struck a hundred times over, each summer, can be counted to you as righteousness, then there is something gained over and above the pleasure of experimenting with intrinsically attractive material.
So many different schemes are there as yet untried in any appreciable degree, such a multitude of pleasing potentialities to be evolved and materialized according to your individual imaginings, that specific suggestion might almost seem superfluous; but there are ever changes to ring upon the finest harmonies, ever fresh combinations to attempt, new intonations to essay, a different sentiment to symbolize. Indeed, there is practically no limit in full summer-time and a flowery country, to the arrangements, all more or less commendable, to which the goodly company of wayside weeds will lend themselves.
The opaque pallor delicately stained with green, of the waxen wild bryony blossom, with its sharply serrated leaves, its exquisite trails arid tendrils full of vaguely classic sentiment-a veritable hedge Bacchante, as it were-is set off to a marvel by the golden dusk complexion, the simply subtle curves and romantic lines of old Japanese bronze. And this should suffice in itself-given, of course, appropriate guidance, without which the most promising composition must fall hopelessly to pieces. But. if you should have set your heart upon fragrance as well as qualities of form and colour, none can reasonably quarrel with you for filling the very tallest and slenderest of your bronzes with a great sheaf of meadow-sweet and setting it in the midst. Again, a by no means unpleasing arrangement on a somewhat similar plan may be arrived at by means of the wild clematis-the same that passes the summer as Traveller's Joy, and tumbles down the vale of autumn as Old Man's Beard-disposed discreetly in bowls and vases of clear, pale-green glass. Here, again, the central trophy should be high, and for this you can hardly find anything more sympathetic than pure white foxgloves. As refined and researched an arrangement as heart could wish, and, at the same time, most easy to compass, is a profuse triumph of shell-tinted blackberry blossom set in vessels of iridescent glass; not, be it clearly understood, the ordinary iridescent glass of commerce, which, for all its soap-bubble sheen, - makes appreciably for the commonplace, but that admirable reproduction-fairwith all the mysterious poetry of the opal, and lit with the same veiled fires-of the substance of the antique glass tearcruses found in Etruscan tombs. Given the finest and whitest of fair linen, the most delicately frail old silver, and thin white china without spot or blemish, the effect as a whole has indubitable distinction, while the detail cannot fail to please
"Do not," says the poetess, "chew the hemlock rank, growing on the weedy bank," and there is little temptation to disregard her kindly warning; you may, however, compose a very ethereally pretty dinner-table decoration from the frail white umbels with their innumerable tiny blossoms and tender green stalks that flourish, in all manner of sizes, on grassy banks and beside the hedgerows. To these you may add, with liberal but judicious hand and distinct advantage, long-stemmed blooms of tile scabious in all its subtle varieties of tone and quality, ranging from faintest violet to dull, rich purple. For this arrangement the best vessels are of airily fantastic, yet not too elaborately fashioned, Venetian glass, chiefly white, but throwing out dim, well-subordinated suggestions of pale green, and blue, hovering on the verge of purple.
The almost austere simplicity of the sweet scented white campion claims, when obtainable, the pearly tones of old pewter as a shrine-or else, for second choice, vases of pure white Dresden; and, if it seems to need companionship, the small gold stars and dark leaves of the St. John's wort might justly be deemed fit to bear it company.
Before the high tide of the year the dog-violets have had their day, together with many another early summer flower; and still, despite their scentlessness, the remembrance of an oval breakfast table half-paved with these, set close together in shallow chalices of old blue glass, whose blunt lapis-lazuli diapers were patterned with dim gold, still lingers an agreeable memory, and one fraught with promise of future symphonies in purple and blue. The briar-rose and the sweet-briar beside, it were best to gather in bud, so soon do the full blown blossoms fall, and for them, as for other flowers (but roses always more particularly), forethought will add a few drops of gal-volatile-it is better than salt-to the water they are to stand in, thus prolonging to the utmost the freshness which is their life. And for these wild roses any manner of glass, provided it be of pure design, rather low than tall of build, and either faintly green or else colourless, may serve. They will show, moreover, to equal advantage in daintily sprigged or garlanded, or in fine blue and white, china bowls.
The cool glories of water-lilies, yellow and white, are too well appreciated to touch upon here, save to deplore that the vessels they are set in are never, or hardly ever, of adequate dimensions. It is pitiable to see them, in their large and lordly beauty, languishing in puny glass troughs like a swan in a wash-tub; and, indeed, it seems more than doubtful as to whether from their very nature, and the sentiment of their association, they are suited to serve as table or indoor decorations at all.
Suppose a house with an enclosed courtyard, flagged with white stones between which the grass is growing, and there in the centre a tank of dull, yellow marble, and you have a fit home for the domesticated water-lily-that and none other.
At the first blush the discredited and generally odious épergne appears to have outlived its uses altogether, and this, of course, must still hold good of the intrinsically meaner kinds; but, the freaks of fashion notwithstanding, there are some examples left of almost classically elegant design, in Sheffield plate and finely-cut glass, to which honour and preservation are due. Such a one, filled with closely-massed bell-heather and its natural green, airily crowned with the long slim stalks and drooping grey-blue heads of hare-bells, has found its best furfilment. Slender, trumpet shaped glasses holding hare-bells, in number proportionate to the size of the table, should complete the effect.
"The world," says an old saw, "was never so dull, but if one won't another will;" and when the rose of yesterday is all but forgotten, when chrysanthemum sheaves stand ephemeral monuments of desolation, blackened and forlorn, and the garden is ''a sealed seed-plot" which only faith can glorify in advance, what should you do but go for consolation to the next best that offers? From the early span" flowers that even before Christmas are hawked abroad in the streets, you turn with a shiver, for of all unseasonable wares these anticipatory blooms would seem the least in harmony with the spirit of this moribund time of year, and the least desirable. And, besides, their pale presence forestalls-discounts, as it were, in some measure-that thrill of vague unreasoning hopefulness, of foolish exhilarating anticipation, that comes with the first real spring day. You should never buy your first bunch of rose or purple anemones, of white, faintly-fragrant narcissi, or yellow jonquils, until the air has the moist breath of spring in it, and the sun's gold is the veritable gold of spring.
It is easy, of course, to have a few bowls and vases for ever going with hot-house flowers. But what of the multiplicity of vessels, short and tall, rotund and slender, that are left naked to laughter when leaves fall and cold winds come?-those vessels set on side tables, in odd corners, and on chimney-pieces, overflowing with flowers for three parts of the year in the pride of plenitude, in winter lorn and disconsolate. They are mostly crowned for a few days in mid-winter with holly and yew, with mistletoe and laurel, but that is merely for the moment, and soon the accustomed tenantry of each will oust the Yuletide usurpers and come to its own again, with, perhaps, some change of grouping and shifting of place, according to the inspiration of the disposer or the exigencies of the background.
It is given but to very few to keep their outlying jars and flower-vases in fresh blossoms throughout the winter. Indeed the sentiment of the season forbids it, inclining rather to sympathetic alliance with those gracious phantoms of summer growth which you may have, mostly for the plucking, in autumn, and may now and again, if you have missed your chances then, purchase of the street-hawker later in the year. They are wraiths, of course, void of scent and bloom, but yet the fairest and most decorative of spectres; "like ghosts of pilgrims that have died around the Holy Sepulchre," they haunt the grave of every summer that is born and has perished, paying tribute, and bearing witness to, its splendours overpass. They are ready to step into the breach with their armoury of fragile charms on the very emergency at which they are most needed: comely and pleasant were they in their lives, and in death they are not unhonoured.
Indeed, the last state of the Honesty, with its decorative, almost Japanesque, wealth of shimmering pearly moons, hung on frail stems, and stitched, as it were, here and there round the edges with a delicate dark thread, is far more distinctively beautiful than its first-dainty though the clusters of lilac blossom can be. In the early summer, a little after the daffodil and a little before the iris, a few clumps of Honesty in full flower stand up bravely between the late tulips, making an amethystine mist of bloom very pleasant to the eye; but the supreme moment of existence is when, the high seeding stage, dreary and dissipated-looking, being past, the tall, whitish-grey stalks are cut off close to the ground on some still autumn day before the rough weather begins, and careful thumb and finger strip off the dun-coloured casings that cover either side of the iridescent discs, and let fall the flat round seeds. You must not forget, however, to humour the plant in this process of-unveiling its inner mysteriousness, for the delicate film is only too easily torn or broken off, being as brittle and as unchancy to handle as most other things of beauty, real and ideal.
Once safely stripped and set in its appointed place, a cluster of Honesty will last through a winter, even a London winter, in grace and comeliness. As for the receptacle, it matters little what it may be, provided only that it is good in form and colour, and not too low of stature. A Delft or Nankin jar, a slender tapering pitcher of bronze, an old cloisonne vase with rich dusky blues and vermilions, in all or either this delectable weed will show to advantage if judiciously disposed, without overcrowding and with due regard to the structural character of every spray. If the Honesty harvest have yielded well, and you can afford to be generous, one of the prettiest arrangements in the world may be arrived at by crowning a Georgian copper tea-urn with its shell-like whiteness. The combination is particularly happy, and shines forth 'from a shadowy recess like a good deed in a naughty world.
Less easy to arrange, by reason of its habit of growth, but charming all the same, is the Cape Gooseberry, as it is commonly called, whose miniature Japanese lanterns of a translucent orange-red, sometimes full, sometimes delicately faint in colour, dangle in distracting disarray from their slim supports. For this a narrow-necked vessel, be it metal or china-glass is obviously out of the question in the case of all these dried braveries- were advisable; or else, and this depends entirely upon the position they are to occupy, you may let them trail from a shallow goblet of not too insignificant proportions.
The common flag, after it has "come to full flower-time," and ripened in due course, makes a fine harmony with its tall seed-pod, where the brown sheath draws back like a split pomegranate to disclose the large seeds of a luminous red; and with this it is well to intermingle pale banners of the dried spear-grass and wavering sedge. It is just possible that in some remote period to come, generations yet unborn shall rise up and call the bulrush blessed. At present the wrong is too recent, the abominations that have been wrought in its image are too often in evidence for appreciation or even for ordinary justice. Milking stools, umbrella-stands, plaques in terra-cotta, door panels, and the like, conspire to cast contumely on this innocent vegetable, as mercilessly maltreated by the amateur as the sunflower and the stork.
Happily the homely attractions of the honest, and most decoratively valuable teazle, have not been turned into a reproach by zealous misrepresentation; it is as welcome as ever to a place of honour in the larger and more robustly fashioned of our vases. In the immediate neighbourhood of delicate porcelain it needs not to say that the teazle, even as pampas grass, were out of place; neither, and equally, of course, must it be implanted in a small or meagrely-proportioned vessel; its bold outlines and rugged growth demand a spacious and not too finely detailed shrine.
Most to be shunned of all so-called immortelles are the odious dyed grasses, "selected" bundles of which are shamelessly offered for sale. They are the visible expression of tastelessness and vulgarity, on the same level, so to speak, with sham begonias in flower-pots and camellias carved in turnip. And while there are opportunities, so many and sweet, for justifiable selection, there can be no excuse whatever for the existence of such monstrosities as these. The smallest of small beech boughs, such as grow low on the saplings, are easily attainable, and if gathered at the right time, and not over often disturbed, will often keep their copper-gold leafage until the spring. Dried fronds of bracken, too, are admirable in effect, either together, or when their russet warmth of colour is closely contrasted with the pale sheen of the Honesty.
In some of the down countries you may find growing near the sea a pleasing variety of umbels, very graceful and fantastic, while on the short turf not far away from the hedges that harbour them grow the short-stemmed thistles, like transmuted moon-daisies with large round centres of tawny amber velvet, and hard, silvery petals curled backward. Here, again, but lower down and nearer the shingle, grow grey sea-thistles. But it is near the scant shelter of the hedgerows above that you must seek the tall, slim weed that boasts of so graceful an array of drooping, pitcher-shaped seed vessels, as refined in form as Greek vases of the best period.
"Red rose-leaves will never make wine," but the coral-coloured, pear-shaped fruits that remain on the briars will serve, in company with dried walnut or plane-leaves, in bronze dishes, to render a winter dessert very fair to see. Walnuts, pears, and apples, to say nothing of oranges and grapes, are outwardly and exceedingly glorified by juxtaposition with such wild wood spoils.
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